For MLK day last week, we watched this simple, kid-friendly Brainpop Jr. video about Dr. Martin Luther King. After it finished, I briefly synopsized it to make sure the kids, especially the younger ones, had a good sense for why we celebrate his birthday. There was a short, weighty pause while everyone let that chunk of history sink in. And then this innocent 4-year-old cherub that I teach took a deep breath and said, "Well . . . I'm glad I'm white."
It's rare that one of the kids leaves me speechless.
Image Credit: flyingroc, via Flickr
The older kids, ages 6, 7, and 11, immediately jumped all over the wee preschooler with all sorts of "It doesn't matter what color your skin is" reprimands. I calmed them down and we discussed it a bit more. But it really got me thinking.
This 4-year-old is being raised in a Baha'i family, where race unity is not only accepted, but is an actively taught belief. Her mother, who is half Iraqi, was raised in West Africa. They have friends of all different races and cultures. From every standpoint, this kid is surrounded by messages of equality.
And it's not as though her response was inappropriate for her age. Not having a real clear sense of time and history, it's understandable that she would simply see that the people who looked like her in the story were not the ones being mistreated, and feel some relief in the idea that she'd have been on the safer end of things if she lived back then.
But it underscored for me the importance of proactive education in overcoming our country's racial history. Because really, this "I'm glad I'm white" notion probably lives deep inside most of us white folk, whether we are conscious of it or not.
What if this little cherub didn't have the upbringing and education to check that automatic response? How easy would it be, even subconsciously, for "I'm glad I'm white" to gradually morph into "It's better that I'm white" and eventually to "I'm better because I'm white" if there wasn't a strong message to counter that?
And I wonder if a black child watching the same video, or learning about that same chunk of history, might have the opposite gut response. I'm sure there's some pride there in seeing someone like Dr. King doing such courageous and world-changing work. But at the same time, they're seeing that 1) people that look like them were seen as dirty and inferior, and 2) people that stood up for change, though they had support, were doubly mistreated and eventually shot and killed. I always think of civil rights movement education as inspiring. But maybe there's another layer to it that I have - in my white ignorance, perhaps - never considered. If a white child thinks "I'm glad I'm white," could a black child think, "It sucks that I'm black?"
I watched a video interview of Dr. Joy Degruy, author of "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome," where she explained very clearly how much our country's racial history still affects blacks today. African Americans in general have had to fight not only the white status quo, but their own slavery-era ancestral habits in order to climb toward equality.
Take, for example, education. If you were a child of a slave, and you were caught knowing how to read, you'd be beaten. Or your family would be beaten. Or separated. Or worse. Education had horrible consequences for blacks for a very long time in this country. So parents taught their kids to act dumb in order to keep them safe. The dumber you talked, the safer you were. Those were truths - not assumptions, not ignorant habits, but truths - that got passed down for generations. Fear - especially fear for one's children - is a powerful and insidious oppressor.
We've come a long way, I think, but we still have so much vital work to do in this area. The civil rights movement really wasn't that long ago. One generation from me. Two generations from these kids I teach. There's a lot of subconscious junk that is still quite fresh in the larger scheme of things. Maybe it's not enough to teach kids that skin color doesn't matter. Maybe we need to dig deeper than that, uncomfortable as it might be.
The Baha'i teachings call racial equality between blacks and whites America's most challenging issue. And the suggestions for what needs to be done to solve it really boils down to doing our own work, both internally and externally:
(Note: This was written in 1938, so try not to let the term "Negroes" bristle you too much - it was the appropriate term at the time.)
"Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once and for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds. Let the Negroes, through a corresponding effort on their part, show by every means in their power the warmth of their response, their readiness to forget the past, and their ability to wipe out every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds. Let neither think that the solution of so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other. Let neither think that such a problem can either easily or immediately be resolved." - Shoghi Effendi
So much work to do.
I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of my thoughts on this matter, but life calls. Feel free to share your thoughts. These are important conversations to have.
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